Posted: March 30th, 2022
Gender is often considered an immutable trait, linked inextricably to the biological sex one was born with. However, research over the past several decades in a multitude of fields including anthropology, psychology, and sociology shows that gender is socially constructed and not innate. Gender is projected onto children before they are fully cognizant of their surroundings, dressed in gendered clothes and channeled into gendered activities. A child is rarely free to construct his or her own gender. While it is rare for a person to be born hermaphroditic, it is not rare at all for someone to dis-identify with their socially prescribed gender and therefore deviate from the norm. Some forms of gender-bending are considered normative, but only in certain contexts. For example, a young girl can be a tomboy without serious social consequences but if she continues to subvert traditional gender norms, she risks social stigma. The level of discrimination against people who do not conform to normative gender roles varies from community to community, but in some cases can be relatively severe. As Charon & Vigilant point out, women are treated measurably differently in the workplace, particularly after they have children. The perception is that men can better balance work and family commitments than women; something that has no grounding in fact.
Gender and sexuality are related issues, and sexual orientation is also something that can be considered socially constructed mainly in that heterosexuality has been constructed as normative. Charon & Vigilant draw attention to the social stigmas against homosexuality, linking homophobia to anti-Semitism: “the institutionalized hatred of homosexuality serves clear social functions . . . Like anti-Semitism, the hatred of homosexuality serves the function of valorizing the normal,” by allowing heterosexuals to create an in-group status (p. 290). Gays and lesbians are portrayed as “dangerous” as well as deviant (Charon & Vigilant, p. 290). The result is systematic, institutionalized discrimination that becomes pervasive and pernicious, with direct ramifications on the daily lives of individuals. Gender and sexuality can be determinants of social status, which leads to consequences like access to positions of power. Women earn less than men and have less political capital in general. Homophobia frequently leads to bullying in schools, which can cause children to commit suicide.
Ultimately socially constructed features like gender, sexuality, and race are significant in that they impact status and access to power. As Charon & Vigilant put it, “the struggle over defining who is an ‘American’ . . . is, at its heart, about power,” (p. 288). It is as if the dominant culture perceives power and status as limited resources, like a rare mineral. The struggle to maintain the dominant culture is rooted in fear of losing power, which is why there is often tremendous and sometimes violent backlash against self-empowerment by subordinate groups. Feminists are sometimes accused of “feminizing” society, as if there was something inherently wrong with feminization, and by ridiculing feminists the dominant culture fails to recognize the harms of patriarchy. Likewise when blacks say “Blacks lives matter!” their statement is systematically ridiculed by a dominant culture that fails to recognize white privilege. When gays and lesbians are asked to hide their sexuality, the dominant culture fails to realize the power of heteronormativity: why it is considered acceptable for a straight couple to hold hands in public but not a homosexual couple. At the heart of each of these types of discrimination is a fear within the dominant culture of losing status or power, implying that social and political power are essentially based on having power over others.
Power does not need to be about dominating other people through intimidation, coercion, prejudice, and discrimination. It is possible to create a society in which power is shared and distributed equally through the normalization of mutual respect. The dominant culture is too tolerant of discrimination, to the point where there is even a backlash against political correctness. Political correctness is an attempt to redefine what is acceptable behavior and what is not; it is not a censorship movement. Political correctness is a means of self-empowerment; it is the ability to say that it is not acceptable to deny gays and lesbians equal rights and that it is not acceptable to treat female employees like they are worth less than their male counterparts. The dominant culture is intimidated by the self-empowerment of subordinate groups, which is why political correctness, feminism, gay pride, and other attempts at self-empowerment are systematically denigrated.
Patriarchy and sexism may be the most universal forms of discrimination. Women the world over continue to struggle with systematic oppression, even in the most progressive and advanced societies. In extreme cases, women lack essential rights such as the right to an education or to self-determination. When gender and race intersect, the level of discrimination can become even more intense. Sexuality is a complex variable linked to power and status. Male homosexuality quite possibly threatens the dominant culture more than lesbianism precisely because the dominant culture is patriarchal, based on ingrained beliefs about masculinity. Even though male homosexuality often coincides with traditional male gender performativity (such as hypermasculine traits like big muscles), the perception of male homosexuality is that it threatens the status quo of patriarchal power and male dominance. A gay man essentially loses some of his male privilege when he is out of the closet. A lesbian, because her gender already confers a lower social status, loses less of that status when she is out of the closet.
Charon, J.M. & Vigilant, L.G. Social Problems: Readings with Four Questions 4th Edition
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